Guardians of the grasslands
How conservationists and ranchers in Saskatchewan are working to slow the loss of an endangered ecosystem
- 2346 words
- 10 minutes
“All the mischiefs humans and the universe are capable of inflicting on an ecosystem have conspired to attack the prairies."
It is a country to breed mystical people, egocentric people, perhaps poetic people. But not humble ones. At noon the total sun pours on your single head; at sunrise or sunset you throw a shadow a hundred yards long. It was not prairie dwellers who invented the indifferent universe or impotent man. Puny you may feel there, and vulnerable, but not unnoticed. This is a land to mark the sparrow’s fall. —Wallace Stegner, Wolf Willow: A History, a Story, and a Memory of the Last Plains Frontier
More than anything else, the prairies of North America are psychological territory. They carry layers of narrative, memory, loss. I grew up on them, in Regina. The prairies are my place.
They are misunderstood. People who don’t live on them tend to envision amber waves of grain. They don’t know the original prairies that draw me in, the lichen-crusted, sun-bleached, sere grasslands tufted with sagebrush that long for the bison’s kiss.
European colonizers, accustomed to greenery and trees, saw a wasteland except where they saw a potential breadbasket. John Palliser, who travelled the prairies in the 1850s to inform the British government of the area’s potential, famously declared much of it to be unsuitable for settlement of any kind.
Even scientists have spurned the world’s grasslands, which once covered eight per cent of the planet’s land surface. A report from the World Commission on Protected Areas just over a decade ago called the planet’s temperate grasslands likely the least understood biome in the world, whose value had never been reckoned. In 2015, scientists acknowledged that grasslands have an image problem: they’re widely seen as failed forests. And in August 2022, a special grasslands section of the journal Science made a plea for those trying to heal Earth to look to long-rooted grasses for storing carbon, rather than ripping them out to plant trees. The lead headline: “The unrecognized value of grass.”
As for conservation appeal, grasslands don’t have the pizzazz of other endangered landscapes, despite the fact they are among the planet’s regions most at risk from climate heating. The minuscule amount under protection — pegged at just 4.6 per cent of the original area in a recent report — tends to be worse funded, and managed, than other protected areas.
It adds up to cavalier destruction. Grasslands, including the veldts of South Africa, the pampas of South America, the steppes of eastern Europe and North America’s Great Plains, are critically endangered across the world. They are the most threatened and least protected biome — and they are still being routinely razed. Easily and swiftly destroyed for commerce, they can be restored only with time and great difficulty, if at all.
In Canada, the dying of the plains has been happening right under our noses. They have become a hotspot for endangered species. “In school we always learn about the destruction of the Amazon rainforest and we don’t hear a lot about this really special place that we have here in our backyard,” says Ryan Fisher, a conservation biologist who is curator of vertebrate zoology at the Royal Saskatchewan Museum.
I think Wallace Stegner, the Pulitzer Prize-winning American known as the dean both of western writers and of the modern environmental movement, was grappling with that pervasive prairie scorn when he made his pilgrimage back to Saskatchewan in the 1950s, arriving in Eastend — the small town near the back of beyond where his family tried and failed to homestead when he was a child. Stegner wanted to chronicle how the prairies had shaped him, to remember how important they are.
Out of that journey came his love letter to the prairies, Wolf Willow, which weaves together non-fiction tales of his boyhood and the history of the settlement of Eastend with a richly imagined fictional account of the horrible winter of 1906-07 in that part of Saskatchewn. It was published in 1962, the year after I was born, and I first read it about 35 years later when I was writing about eco- logical threats to that part of the world as a national correspondent for the Globe and Mail, based in Calgary. Even though I had learned about the vanishing prairie ecosystem from my dad, George Mitchell (a biologist at the University of Regina who was one of the pioneering students of the prairies), it was Wolf Willow that first gave me permission to name the power of the place.
Then, I moved on. I forgot about the prairies. And when I recently surfaced from other adventures to remember them, I realized they are even more imperilled now than they were the last I looked. Each year, more is irretrievably lost and the creatures that rely on them are evermore endangered.
But countervailing efforts are afoot, too. Innovative restoration programs for some species at risk. Persuasive calculations of the carbon value of leaving grasslands intact. Replanting native species. The return of the bison, that supreme ecosystem engineer, to some First Nations, Métis and to Grasslands National Park on the southern rim of Saskatchewan, the best remnant of native prairie in Canada.
It was time to make my own pilgrimage. And so I went back to Saskatchewan to see what is really going on.
On the prairies, you measure yourself against the sky. You are always conscious of your verticality against the horizon. You are in conversation with the scouring sun, whether facing it head on or finding relief from it.
I am headed southeast along Highway 33, the familiar tarmacked ribbon running unswervingly into the family history of my first husband, my children’s father, dead these seven years: through Fillmore (population 282) where he was born, past Heward (population 30) where his grandparents farmed the homestead property, and a few kilometres further along to Stoughton (population 652), the place his grandparents considered the nearest “big” town.
Growing up in Saskatchewan, you are taught to cherish these homesteaders. They cut a living out of the prairie sod, lived in huts, endured the droughts, the hail, the cold, the grasshoppers, the unremitting sun. But now I am playing a different narrative in my head, one that, like so much on the prairies, has been hidden.
Candace Savage is the Saskatchewan-based author who not only wrote the definitive natural history of the prairies (aptly called Prairie) but also the memoir A Geography of Blood, which is a deconstruction of Stegner’s Wolf Willow. Like Stegner, she went on a pilgrimage to Eastend but reframed the story of colonization. Where colonizers acted on a“foundational racism that made settlement of the prairies possible,” she wrote about the environmental and humanitarian atrocities that made colonization possible.
The slaughter of the bison, which were not only food, shelter and clothing for Indigenous Peoples, but also spiritual sustenance. The ritualistic starving of Indigenous Peoples. The surgical severing of people from their land, from the bison and from each other. The genocidal action of forcing children into residential schools. The breaking of the wild grasslands for crops, from 200,000 hectares in 1906 to two million a decade later, and then another five million during the push for grain during the First World War.
Within a few decades, the prairies were irrevocably altered. These are the threads of history that underpin the prairies’ desecrated state today.
Travel with us
Saskatchewan Whooping Cranes
Watch thousands of sandhill cranes migrate across Southern Saskatchewan, stopping at various localities to refuel before continuing their journey. With them are a handful of Whooping cranes which you will have a good chance of observing – a bucket list experience for any avid birder.
Now, Indigenous Peoples are rematriating bison, also called buffalo, to the prairies. Beginning in 2014, many Indigenous Peoples, First Nations and other levels of Indigenous governance in Canada and the United States signed a Buffalo Treaty to return bison to the land—and to the conversation. The award-winning Cree filmmaker Tasha Hubbard, of the University of Alberta, is making a full-length feature film, Singing Back the Buffalo, following communities that are bring- ing the animals back to the prairies.
Others, such as Joely BigEagle- Kequahtooway, a land-based artist who helped establish the Buffalo People Arts Institute in Regina in 2015, are committed to bringing buffalo back artistically and culturally, a starting place for healing the land and the people. BigEagle- Kequahtooway is at Ocean Man First Nation on this day with some of her BigEagle relatives. We meet at Stoughton’s Co-op gas station, and she invites me to follow her a few kilometres north to the Nation, down a side road into a clearing in a field.
A Sun Dance is unfolding in the midday heat as we arrive, a spiritual ceremony of prayer and fasting. A huge white tent. Towering curved poles adorned with colours. A tarp-covered outdoor kitchen. A U-shaped loop of trailers and vehicles forming a camp around the site. Every woman and girl in a colourful, ankle-length skirt. Once prohibited by law and kept alive in secret, the ritual is now a days-long point of fierce pride around which the whole community gathers.
Why do buffalo matter? I ask BigEagle-Kequahtooway when she comes back during a pause. She gives me a long look. “That’s a half-hour answer. It astonishes me that we don’t ask that question often within our community as we have almost forgotten how dependent we were on them for our lives. It is the effect of colonization we have been brainwashed into forgetting them. When we forget them, we forget our connection to the land.”
When she was growing up in Regina, nobody spoke about the buffalo. As a child, she never ate its flesh or clapped eyes on one. She doesn’t remember buffalo songs or dances. The memories were too sacred to be named.
At 14, she moved to White Bear First Nations with her mother and blossomed. Years of study followed in the U.S. and at university (she is an engineer), recovering the stories, the dances, the traditions.
“Now I finally figured out that buffalo are inside us, in our DNA,” she says. “So, how to activate it?”
Her institute shows people how to tan buffalo hides, among other skills. She’s trying to bring the buffalo back mentally, physically, spiritually, emotionally, breaking free from recent history by embracing her ancestors’ more distant past. It’s fraught.
“This land was built on blood, on war. Our people fought to the death for this land. I can’t believe how cruel it was,” she says, voice rising in pitch, tears flowing. Her daughter reaches over and gives her a hug. “How do we recover? How do we find our way back?”
She pauses: “We’ve been an experiment in the longevity of genocide.”
Even this landscape where the Sun Dance is taking place is a symbol of the perfidy
. Ocean Man First Nation was a signatory to Treaty 4 in 1875 and had about 9,500 hectares of designated reserve lands. But by 1901, the government had induced Ocean Man to give up the property and amalgamate with nearby White Bear because it wanted to give the Nation’s land to homesteaders.
In the 1970s, Ocean Man descendants launched a land claim against the federal government and won. Both the band and the reserve were re-established by 1992, and Ocean Man began rebuilding its land base. But the question of whether the Nation was the original treaty signatory — and therefore had original rights — or was instead a newly created one remained unresolved for three more decades. In February 2022, the federal government formally acknowledged to Chief Connie Big Eagle and other members that Ocean Man had never surrendered its treaty rights.
As I drive away, down a dusty trail through the field and back to the highway, I’m riven with sorrow. I am only a handful of kilometres away from the farm my children’s paternal kin began homesteading at the start of the last century, the place that sat at the core of their father’s identity. Could it have been land stolen from BigEagle-Kequahtooway’s ancestors?
It’s easy to overlook the female greater sage grouse. She’s built for camouflage. One of the grasslands’ iconic birds, her feathers are a complex chevron tweed of black, brown and grey, touched with bright white, bearing a striking resemblance to the habitat she requires for survival. One of the key tells that she is even there is the elegant neck, leading to a downward curving beak and large, wary black eyes.
The male, on the other hand, is a show-off in the style of Liberace-in-Las-Vegas-with-a- marabou-feather-boa — at least when he’s displaying his goods in the elaborate month-long ritual that accompanies sex. Each spring at dusk and at dawn, he and the other cocks gather in a special mating circle, called a lek (possibly from the Old English verb lácan, to play, or from Old Norse or Swedish), to try to dazzle their way into fatherhood.
He struts, rhythmically thrusting forth his chest and propelling air into sacs hiding inside it, wings tight to his sides. Inflated, the sacs resemble oversized, avocado-fleshed breasts surrounded by a sumptuous snow-white stole. Erect black feathers frame his rump in the shape of a fan. He lets the air pump slowly out of the sacs, an uncanny drum beat of longing. Then he dances in quarter turns, displaying the timing, endurance and grit of a vaudeville hoofer. The hens sitting on the sidelines may seem nonchalant, but they’re keeping score. Typically, they all choose the same mate — he who will rule as master cock.
This weird courtship ceremony led to millennia of success for Centrocercus urophasianus. When Europeans arrived in North America, there were perhaps 10 million. And even in the early 1970s, when my dad and his graduate student, Larry Kerwin, did some of the earliest studies on them in Canada, there were scads of sage grouse. My dad used to capture them with nets each day, banding their legs for research.
Today, anywhere from 150,000 to 500,000 remain on the planet, a range that reflects the notorious difficulty of counting them. Almost all are in the U.S., where their population has dropped by 80 per cent since 1965.
In Canada, the situation is desperate. Only five dancing grounds remain, and four are just this side of abandonment. The lone healthy lek is in the east block of Grasslands National Park where about 30 males danced this spring. I last saw a sage grouse in 1998 when I was writing about them for the Globe and Mail. I remember rising before dawn at a field station that my dad took students to in Saskatchewan’s south- west corner, on a quest to watch some strut in the prairie half-light. Then, Canadian biologists were just realizing, to their horror, that the birds were in trouble. Against a background of habitat loss, oil and gas exploration, and invasive species, in a mere decade the population had mysteriously crashed to as few as 500.
Today, despite a federal emergency order to protect their habitat and a captive breeding program based at the Wilder Institute’s Calgary Zoo that has released 187 juveniles to the wild over the past several years, plus a program to
move adult birds from Montana to Alberta, there are likely fewer than 200 and possibly far fewer. The sage grouse has been called the most endangered of all of Canada’s creatures.
And, because it is an umbrella species whose presence means that many other creatures are also there, its absence means other creatures are gone, too. As goes the sage grouse, so goes the prairie.
So, on the second day of my pilgrimage, I am bouncing along near the top of the east block of Grasslands National Park in a mud-spattered truck with rancher Kelly Williamson, hoping to find one. Williamson is executive director of South of the Divide Conservation Action Program Inc., an environmental non-governmental organization in Saskatchewan’s southwest.
Odd as it may seem, ranchers are key to the preservation of the grasslands that are left. For one thing, they know the land intimately and can track minute changes. Hike across what seems like a featureless expanse of wild prairie with Williamson, and he points out one hidden landmark after another. There, a tipi ring. Over here, an invisible trail. As well, some ranchers in this part of the prairie are committed to retaining vast spreads of wild prairie, even though they might be able to make more money sowing crops.
Plus, their cattle help keep the grasslands relatively healthy. Cows are an ecological proxy for the necessary munching and hoof action lost to the prairies when bison were killed off, explains Fisher, the curator of vertebrates from the Royal Saskatchewan Museum, who is also an expert on endangered birds. When there’s no chewing on the grasslands, the forbs (herbaceous flowering plants) that sage grouse and other birds need get choked out by too much grass.
But maybe most important of all for the future of this part of the world: ranchers like grasslands. They see the beauty both in the vast and in the minuscule.
Take Miles Anderson. His extended family has been on this part of the prairie for more than a century. He has long been a champion of wild grasslands, including doing a stint on the advisory committee of the federal Species at Risk Act. He is taking part in a program linked to South of the Divide to reseed about 10 hectares of his sprawling ranch, which were once tilled, with native mixed-grass plants. We’ve just arrived to check on the progress. Anderson refers to this as “prairie in recovery.”
It’s buzzing with insects, a good sign. (“The first thing to go after cultivation is insects,” Anderson remarks.) There’s a mix of green needle grass, slender wheatgrass, western wheatgrass, northern wheatgrass. The smell is sweet, baffling, complex. “I’m surprised it actually took,” Williamson tells him, as we all look around. “You put it out there, and it’s not in your hands.”
To Anderson, this is just a start. This small slice of land will eventually be home to 50 or more native plant species, becoming viable habitat for endangered birds to do a merry dance. He plans to restore at least another 80 hectares. “Plants work together, and one will support the other. And when you get the whole gamut, it’s gonna work,” he says.
Sun beating down on our shoulders, we wander over to an expanse that, like most of his land, has never been broken, its lichen crust crunching under our feet. Anderson, in his jeans, jean shirt, white runners and straw cowboy hat, knows every inch of the place. Here are moss phlox and pussytoes. Over there, French hair grass, goldenrod, yarrow, prairie coneflower, hemp nettle and blue grama grass that looks exactly like an eyebrow on a stick. Someone tips up a dry cow patty to look underneath: ants. Anderson peers at them: “The little red guys. Okay. We’re good.”
The land holds memories, too. He is thinking of the sage grouse that once danced here. Over there is the ghostly outline of an abandoned lek, he says, gesturing to the ground. And off in the distance is Canada’s sole thriving lek, about where his land meets Grasslands National Park, he says, pointing.
But while his knowledge of his sections of the land is deep, much about the prairie is unresearched and unloved, even as it vanishes. As far as Anderson is concerned, federal government agricultural programs have long been biased against keeping grasslands intact. That philosophy underpinned the idea of the homestead. The cost of getting deed to a quarter-section, which is 160 acres (about 65 hectares), was to break 10 acres.
More recently, despite there being so little grassland left, the federal government’s Gross Revenue Insurance Plan, known as GRIP, which ended in 2002, actively encouraged tilling. “If you had prairie, you got a little, but if you plowed it up, you got a lot. Native prairie was considered a wasteland,” Anderson says.
Even now, in an era acutely conscious of harnessing the power of nature to heal the planet, the carbon-storage potential of the grasslands is poorly understood in Saskatchewan, Williamson tells me. Tests to determine how much carbon plants are storing penetrate only a few centimetres below the surface. Carbon is more visible when it’s in trunks and branches. But grasses store the stuff in roots that can be metres long. To get the full picture, South of the Divide launched a research program this past summer to map carbon on “living laboratory” parcels of land ranging from 2,000 acres to 50,000 acres.
Then there’s the riddle of the highly changeable nature of the wild prairie landscape itself. When bison were here and the ecosystem was healthy, the grasslands were characterized by patches. Short grass here. Long grass over there. Grass that hadn’t been grazed for years somewhere else. A thatch of shrubs. Different communities of prairie birds could find what they liked.
Now, Williamson and other conservationists are struggling to figure out how best to help privately managed pastures, such as the 20,000-hectare Mankota village community pasture near the park’s east block, reproduce that patchiness. It’s a hunt for heterogeneity that they haven’t figured out yet.
Even information on insects, a prime food of young sage grouse and other birds, is lacking. A pioneering study led by Jeff Skevington, a research scientist at Carleton University, is underway right now in the park’s east block to find out which insects are common in this part of the world. It involves malaise traps — think bug tents — that capture and kill whatever flies into them, to be counted and identified later.
I’m shaken that so much remains unknown about this critical biome, at this late stage of the game — and that the destiny of some of the vestigial wild places rests in the goodwill and curiosity of passionate individual landowners. What’s to stop a new generation of ranchers from over-grazing the native grasses on their land or plowing it up to grow cattle feed or canola?
But along with the paucity of research, comes innovation. In 2017, the South of the Divide Conservation Action Program began working with ranchers, other organizations and Grasslands National Park on an ambitious restoration program called “grassbanking.” It allows ranchers to pasture their cattle on parts of the park’s east block in exchange for preserving or creating habitat for species at risk in adjacent private lands. If the private owners meet vegetation targets, they get a deal on grazing fees. It’s a potential win for the park, too. A grassland without grazers gets too overgrown. Initial results are promising.
We’re on our way to look at one of these experimental parcels with another part of the Anderson ranching clan: Miles’s cousin Lloyd and his wife Nyla. They operate six-and-a-half sections (nearly 1,700 hectares) within the park boundary and another two-and-a-half sections (about 650 hectares) on its border.
On their own land, they manage things much the same as Lloyd’s grandparents did a century ago — on horseback. About 80 to 90 per cent of their land is original native grass. The grassbanking project hasn’t changed their practices; just their mindfulness about endangered species.
“We’re doing things to make conditions better for that bird in the park,” says Lloyd Anderson. “Before this, I didn’t give it any thought. Our normal ranch management on our property was creating habitat for them. Now, we’re making it better.”
That means nudging the cattle to graze different parts of the landscape at different times by offering salt blocks and water and putting up fences. The principle is to create that ideal mosaic of habitats.
Just as we near the border between the property and the park, Sheena McInnes, an environmental specialist at South of the Divide, shouts to Williamson to stop. Slowly, we back up. Quietly, we creep out of the trucks and pull out binoculars.
It’s a female sage grouse, nearly indiscernible from the ripened prairie grasses she is nestled in. The hen had been on the move, a great mass against the grass with a long neck and a black eye.
We stand there, mouths agape, enthralled, looking at one of the rarest creatures in Canada. McInnes is pretty sure she also saw a brood of chicks, now hidden under the bird’s wings as she squats on the land, waiting for us to move on. It’s impossible for us to verify without disturbing her, and we aren’t about to do that.
Here is a hen who probably bore witness to the age-old dance on the last healthy lek in Canada and succumbed to its power. If she is here with chicks, we are clapping eyes on a significant proportion of the sage grouse left in this country. The birds are in such tough shape that the fate of this individual bird and her brood might determine the future of the species in Canada. I am humbled, both by how beautiful she is and by how much my species has ravaged hers.
One December afternoon in 1960, Wallace Stegner sat down at his typewriter and tossed off a letter that helped convince U.S. lawmakers to protect vast tracts of federally controlled wild lands. In it, he made a plea for what he called the “wilderness idea.”
By that he meant untouched places whose uses are “absolutely non-recreational, impractical, and mystical.” They merely feed the soul, give birth to awe and allow you to figure out who you are. He called them “a means of reassuring ourselves of our sanity as creatures, a part of the geography of hope.” His letter ended up forming the introduction to America’s Wilderness Act, which established the National Wilderness Preservation System in 1964.
Among the landscapes Stegner used to make his case was the austere Saskatchewan prairie, much like the part of it
I’m driving on right now. “I hope I learned something from looking a long way, from looking up, from being much alone,” Stegner wrote.
I know what he means: it’s just me and a handful of pronghorns on Highway 13, just above the province’s southern edge. This route is known as the Red Coat Trail for the North-West Mounted Police who made their way to this part of the world for the first time in the blistering summer of 1874. On the official map, the route is marked with the pictogram of a mustachioed gent in a scarlet tunic, black cap on his head, gazing westward. It’s a bid to summon the romance and derring-do of the early exploits of the force.
But Candace Savage’s A Geography of Blood (the book’s name is a riff on Stegner’s famous phrase) reminds us that those officers originally arrived to investigate the massacre of between 15 and 80 Nakoda, slaughtered not far from here in Cypress Hills in a single drunken night by Montana wolf hunters. Only three were charged, and none were convicted. The North-West Mounted Police eventually became a crucial arm of Canada’s colonization project. The relationships they forged with Indigenous Peoples here helped set up the treaty and reserve system.
Maybe because the layers of history are so thick here, I begin to concentrate on the farmlands surrounding me. For the first time, I can track the relentless geometry of the place: the planes of light and arc of sky set against the square facets of the fields. Abandoned one-room wooden homestead houses dot the horizon. They lean away from the wind, trapezoids weather-beaten to pearly grey but still too solidly built, after all this time, to fall down.
Gophers stand like sentinels guarding the fields. Every now and then, one turns to the road and makes a break for it, trying to outrun the cars, tail at a sharp right angle, body coiling up into rhythmic curves as it sprints. Many don’t make it. Gopher guts are baked into the pavement, and hawks circle, alert to the feasts to come.
I drive by one gopher on its back in a fatal rictus, spasming backwards across the road. Later, I check my tires to see if I, too, have added to the carnage. Broken shards of tiny bone stick out from the treads, embedded in flesh. Death stalks you in a place like this.
I’m headed toward Val Marie, gateway to the west block of Grasslands National Park. I imagine Stegner would have liked the idea of it. It’s a relatively new park, gazetted in 2001 after half a century of lobbying, wrangling, impasses and, finally, breakthroughs that included Parks Canada buying back mineral rights from the oil company Amoco.
Pieced together from ranches and some previously cultivated lands, when it’s complete the park will encompass 900 square kilometres in its two big, discrete, ecologically important blocks. The west block, the slightly more touristy one with tenting spots and marked trails, is nearly assembled, while the east block, where I was yesterday, is about two-thirds done.
This is the epicentre of the federal government’s efforts to protect the vanishing prairie. Within its boundaries are more than 30 federally designated species at risk. I’m meeting with the park’s wildlife ecologist, Stefano Liccioli, in a sliver of shade in the backyard of his home in Val Marie, steps from the park’s information centre, to see how it’s doing.
Dressed in shorts and his green Parks Canada button-up, he’s just finished a long day of work and has a small break before going back to the park this evening to do a census of endangered burrowing owls.
He tells me about the triumphant return of the bison to the west block in 2005 after an absence of 120 years. Those original 71 animals now hover around 450; the population is growing 30 to 35 per cent a year, and population growth is among the highest in North America. Even one- and two-year-old females are routinely having calves, a feat biologists didn’t expect. In fact, every couple of years, park biologists have to find new homes for close to 200 “surplus” bison, sending them to conservation partners, First Nations and research zoos or into bison herds farmed for food.
Even though the bison are highly managed — they can roam, for example, but they have to stay in the park — they’ve already changed the park in multiple, interlocking ways, Liccioli tells me. Not only do bison chew grass and churn up the soil, but they also wallow in the dirt, creating depressions. That changes how much water the soil retains, and that, in turn, changes which plants live in the soil. The bison presence affects invertebrates, amphibians, scavengers, carnivores and small mammals. Even birds use buffalo hair to make nests. Slowly, some pieces of this pillaged land are reassembling.
But putting one keystone of the ecosystem back in place does not fix the problems. All the mischiefs humans and the universe are capable of inflicting on an ecosystem have conspired to attack the prairies. It’s not just the plow and the oil derrick. Even before humans arrived, the native prairie was fragile, says Joe Piwowar, who retired this past summer as professor of geography at the University of Regina. The prairies exist on the edge of what’s possible when it comes to precipitation and temperature. Any small change in either can have massive effects. And human-caused climate heating is ramping up changes in both. Already, droughts and heatwaves are on the rise and more change is inevitable.
As for the park itself, it is like two islands separated by vast tracts of farmland and ranchland, and mainly surrounded by it. “Even if the park were perfect, it would still suffer from what’s happening elsewhere,” Liccioli says.
He’s just spent two-and-a-half days in a workshop devoted to sage grouse recovery, a federal priority species. I tell him I saw a female yesterday, and he sits straight up in his chair, eyes wide. He wants coordinates. The population, already tiny, is dropping every year, and every bird matters, he says.
“All the things we need to do to restore them take time. We don’t seem to have that time,” Liccioli says. “They don’t play the role they used to play, but healthy sage grouse mean a healthy ecosystem. It’s part of our heritage as Canadians and, more, as humans.”
It’s unclear whether sage grouse will survive in Canada. Their best chance is in the park’s east block because that population is connected to healthier ones in the United States. The fact that any exist in Canada at all may be a victory born of heroic measures. A decade ago, a consensus of biologists said the birds had a 90 per cent chance of being extirpated here by now. Most biologists already consider them functionally extinct in Canada. What if we lose them altogether?
“It would mean failing to protect and preserve native prairies in Canada,” Liccioli says, flatly.
The next morning, as I stand in the middle of a colony of black-tailed prairie dogs in the west block — they are big-bummed and jolly, if threatened with extinction — it’s hard to fathom just how imperilled this landscape is. It seems so resilient. A wind has blown in overnight, bringing cleansing gusts of sweet air. Clouds are scarce. The sky is a healing blue. Two pronghorns race each other in the distance. Wolves and cougars are likely lurking out of sight, and so are burrowing owls.
I hike down a coulee, peering at the ground. As I walk, the scent of creeping juniper rises to meet me in the heat, and then the sharp nose of sage. I spot a baby greater short-horned lizard scampering for shade, needle-and-thread grass, lichens in all the colours of the rainbow. This is a place for the shriven.
I am on the final leg of my journey, having decided that I, too, must seek the wisdom of Eastend. Zipping along Highway 18, the most southerly route across Saskatchewan, from Val Marie toward the turnoff on Highway 614, I realize that Highway 614 is just gravel. New gravel, piled high for the snows yet to come, lacking tracks for small cars. Thirty-eight solitary, unforgiving kilometres of it.
Raised on the prairies, I know to stay in the middle of the road and slow down, but still, the gravel pulls me to the edges, first one way, then the other. I feel like I’m on a bucking bronco. I’m reminded of a scene near the end of Stegner’s Wolf Willow, in which he describes driving in a Model T with his father across a ford of Coteau Creek. An axle breaks. The father stashes the young Wallace with a homesteader family, walks 60 kilometres across the border to Chinook, Montana, comes back with a new axle two days later and installs it, sweating.
I finally make it, intact but extremely dusty, to Eastend, to the house Stegner’s father built. For the past three decades, it has been a writers’ retreat run by the local arts council, one of Canada’s first community-run artist residency programs. Candace Savage was in residence here when she started the research for A Geography of Blood.
This month, the residents are Joyce Clouston, a writer, social worker and Métis knowledge keeper from Winnipeg, and her daughter Karen Sunabacka, a composer at the University of Waterloo. Together, they are adapting a Cree creation legend to be premiered at the University of Manitoba next year.
Dean Bauche, a cultural consultant for the program, is showing me around. Stegner lived here for six years as a small, feral child during the years around the First World War. Up there was his bedroom window, Bauche says, pointing to a room on the second floor at the back of the pale-green clapboard house. Behind the property is the river that flows through so many of Stegner’s tales, and beyond that, the dump where he excavated the dreams and sins of his townspeople.
I’m trying to figure out why this place has such meaning for me. What have I been trying to find? Bauche, who was director of the Allen Sapp Gallery in North Battleford until he retired, has seen this phenomenon before. Artifacts have power, he says, gently. They are imbued with time and space, with memory and narrative. The world and era they evoke is important precisely because they intersect with other worlds in other eras. They are a testing ground for one’s own identity.
And, I realize, this house of Stegner’s stands as an emblem of the possibility of weaving impossible narratives together. The celebrated writer with a dated understanding of Indigeneity spawns a legacy that fosters reconciliation. The prairies are defiled and forgotten but beautiful and worth saving. Colonizers broke the land, fed humanity, yet committed genocide. The buffalo are gone from the land but live on in hearts and souls, maybe to be sung back to the land once more in a time we can’t yet see.
Are you passionate about Canadian geography?
You can support Canadian Geographic in 3 ways:
This story is from the November/December 2022 Issue
How conservationists and ranchers in Saskatchewan are working to slow the loss of an endangered ecosystem
Currently only at 4.4 per cent, the province still needs to acquire another 2.6 per cent of land to protect by the end of 2020
People & Culture
For generations, hunting, and the deep connection to the land it creates, has been a mainstay of Inuit culture. As the coastline changes rapidly—reshaping the marine landscape and jeopardizing the hunt—Inuit youth are charting ways to preserve the hunt, and their identity.
As one of the many trips being offered by Maple Leaf Adventures, Vancouver Island’s Wild Side is an excursion for those who love adventure beyond the norm
Please help us improve our website by taking our short survey.